“Take a deep breath and calm down. She’s tough.” Grant’s tone was firm.
“She’s seventy-five, but she refuses to act it.” Ellie unbuttoned her coat. “She said she was staying home today.”
“She was just bringing in a package,” Grant said. “Some snowmelt dripped off the roof and froze on the porch. Your gutters probably need to be cleaned.”
Ellie spun toward the check-in counter. “She should have stayed in the house.”
He caught her by the arm. “Sit down and relax for a minute.” His tone sharpened into a command.
The order irritated Ellie’s already-frayed nerves. Her gaze dropped to his hand. “Excuse me?”
Grant loosened his grip. Sighing, he moved in front of her, blocking her path, and took her other arm, this time gently. “If she sees you like this, it’ll upset her.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Ellie’s eyes filled with tears. She pressed her palms to her closed lids and took a deep breath. “She could have really been hurt.”
“But she’s not.” His gaze zeroed in on her grime-streaked skirt. “Are you all right?”
“Fine.” She hated the weak tremor in her voice.
Grant guided her into a chair. “Take a minute and pull yourself together. Initially, I was worried about hypothermia. She’d been out in the cold for a while. But she seemed to warm up on the way over here.”
Ellie lowered her hands and opened her eyes. He was crouched in front of her. Concern deepened the blue of his gaze as he studied her.
“I’m sorry.” She sniffed.
“No apologies necessary.”
“Yes, there is. You found Nan and brought her to the hospital. I should be thanking you for taking care of her, not giving you a hard time.” Ellie exhaled, letting some of the tension inside of her out with her breath. He was still focused on her. God, he was perfect. He took a screaming baby in stride. Her acting like a crazy woman didn’t even scare him off. “If you hadn’t been there—” Anxiety stoked fresh. She put her hand to her brow.
He caught her hand and held it. His warm fingers wrapped around her freezing digits. “Stop. I was there.”
Just for a minute, Ellie stopped fighting her feelings. She let him hold her hand and accepted the strength he offered. This man had it to spare. The heat flowing from his body to hers felt good—too good, and Ellie reminded herself that Grant was only here for another three weeks. Then he was off to Afghanistan for several months. And he was stationed in Texas when he was stateside. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t allow herself to rely on him. Someone was watching her, someone who might still be around long after Grant was gone. For this moment, having him to lean on was a relief, but it had to end here.
“Thank you.” She tugged her hand free. “I’m all right now.”
Grant stood and stepped back, giving her room. “Would you like me to stay?”
“No. We’ve taken enough of your day. This will likely take a while.” She climbed to her feet.
His gaze searched hers. “If you’re sure.” He pulled out his cell. “What’s your number?”
Ellie rattled off the digits, and he entered them into his phone. A second later, her own phone vibrated in her pocket.
“Now you have my cell phone number. Call me if you need anything. I mean that. I’ll be around.”
“Thank you again.” Watching him walk away, she tamped down the regret in her heart and went in search of her grandmother. A nurse directed her to a small exam room cubicle. Nan reclined on a narrow gurney. Pillows elevated her left foot and hand. Dual ice packs were poised over her injuries, and blankets were tucked around the rest of her body. Pain tightened the skin of her face, but otherwise, she looked all right.
Relief flooded Ellie. Her head felt too light, the muscles of her legs weak. She covered her reaction by setting her purse on a folding chair by the bed and removing her coat.
She leaned over to kiss Nan’s cheek. “How does it feel?”
“Pff. It’s not that bad. I told Grant I could wait until you got home from work, but he insisted.”
Thank goodness. “Well, I’m glad.”
“I hope you didn’t get in trouble at work. I hated to bother you.”
“I have paid time off that I rarely use,” Ellie said.
Nan shifted her position and winced. “You should start your own business anyway. You design the best bathrooms and kitchens.”
“Maybe someday,” Ellie said, because she knew better than to say no outright. Nan loved a good debate, especially one that involved what Ellie should and shouldn’t do with the rest of her life. “First I have to get Julia through college.”
Time dragged on as they waited for the doctor and Nan pointed out more reasons that Ellie should go back to school. Eventually, the doctor proclaimed her wrist merely sprained, but her ankle was broken. She encased it in a metal-and-neoprene boot and released Nan with a prescription for pain medication and instructions not to put weight on her foot for a week. An hour later, Ellie drove her grandmother home.
“Oh, there’s Grant,” Nan pointed out the windshield. “He cleared and salted the porch.”
Parking in the driveway, Ellie looked next door. Grant leaned on a shovel. Carson was on his back in the snow, flailing his arms and legs snow-angel style. If she’d thought Lee’s brother was handsome before, that gazillion-watt smile he flashed his nephew took him to a whole new level of sexy.
How was she going to resist him for the next three weeks? Even more important, how could she resist asking him for help? But how could she ask? She scanned the street. Just because she didn’t see anyone watching didn’t mean they weren’t there.
He rested the shovel against the house and started toward the car. AnnaBelle raced to him and spat a tennis ball at his feet. Grant scooped it off the ground and tossed it far into the backyard without missing a stride. The dog whirled and shot off in pursuit.
Grant opened Nan’s door for her. “Let me help you.”
Nan, who usually protested anyone’s help with anything, took his hand without complaint. She turned and eased her feet out of the vehicle. Grant half lifted her out of the car.
Ellie got the crutches out of the backseat and brought them around. “She’s not supposed to put any weight on that foot.”
Grant frowned at the crutches. “Those are going to be tough with a sprained wrist. How about I just pick you up again?”
“Oh, all right,” Nan said. Oh. My. God. She was simpering.
“Carson, come on over here for a minute.” Grant gently scooped Nan off her feet. “This is easier.”
Nan wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Yes, it is.” She looked back at Ellie and winked.
With a mental groan, Ellie carried the crutches into the house behind them. Grant set Nan on the sofa in the family room. “Do you need anything else?”
“No, this is wonderful. Thank you so much.” Nan beamed at him.
“I have to go.” He smiled back. “Call me if you need anything. You have my number, right?”
“I do.” Nan nodded.
Yeah, and Ellie had Nan’s number, too.
“I have to run out, but Hannah is at the house.” Grant turned toward the hall.
Ellie walked him to the door. “Thank you again. For everything.”
Carson waited on the porch, his nose smashed against the glass pane.
“Call me if you need me. I’ll only be gone an hour or so.” Grant leaned closer and lowered his voice. His eyes went serious. “When you get a chance, we need to talk.”
Ellie nodded. “All right. I’ll come over after Julia gets home from school.”
Grant went outside, picking up his nephew and flinging him over one shoulder.
Ellie closed the door to the sound of Carson giggling.
“That is quite a man.” Nan took off her coat and handed it to Ellie.
“Mm.” Ellie made a noncommittal sound. “Let me get you an ice pack.”
“So when are you going to talk to him?”
“What, do you have supersonic hearing or something?” Ellie filled a ziplock baggie with ice and set it on her grandmother’s foot.
“Honey, when a man that handsome talks, I listen.” Nan adjusted a pillow behind her back.
“And let him carry you around?”
“You’re incorrigible.” Ellie’s quick laugh died off. Normally, Nan’s infatuation with the handsome neighbor would be amusing, but the reality of Ellie’s situation wouldn’t fade.
Nan sucked in a sharp breath. “I hate to send you out again, but would you please get my prescription filled? This is really starting to hurt.”
“Of course. I should have dropped it off on the way home. Do you want something to eat?” Ellie checked the time. Two thirty. “We missed lunch.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“OK. Will you be all right here by yourself?”
Nan held up her cell phone. “I’ll be fine. Julia will be home soon anyway.”
What did Grant need to discuss? Maybe he’d found Lee’s files.
She went out onto the front porch, rock salt crunching under her shoes. A shipping box sat on the cement. That must have been what Nan had been retrieving when she fell. Ellie brought the package inside and set it on the hall table. She slit the packing tape with scissors. An odd, raw smell rose from the opening. Ellie lifted the cardboard flaps. Inside, in a plastic bag half filled with ice, sat a red and bloody heart. A knife pierced the organ. Pinned to a board beneath the gruesome package was the enlarged, grainy photo of Julia, Taylor, and Grant that Hoodie Man had sent her earlier. Her daughter’s face was smeared with blood. Bold text printed on computer paper read: JUST SO YOU KNOW I’M SERIOUS.
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